Like the music and the text on which that music is based, Peter Sellars staging of Kurtág's Kafka Fragments emphasises the humour, sadness, anger, and, most inspiringly, the enigma of everyday existence. Unlike the music, however, the staging has something of a problematic relationship with the fragmented nature of the textual form. This problem inhibits somewhat an otherwise excellent performance. I will come back to this.
Kurtág's fervent and acute 1987 cycle consists of forty short settings of frequently aphoristic texts from Kafka's diaries and notebooks. As I mentioned in my preview of the concert these musical fragments, some seconds long, some a few minutes, are distinct from each other musically and emotionally and yet are conjoined by an infinite and piercing light. Each one coheres around, in the director's words, 'a crystalline and blazing moment', around some overwhelming intensity that almost transcends rational interpretation and hence exists in a disconnected form, a composite body of sound and word that doesn’t have to explain itself as whole.
This essence of the fragment, the exemplary twentieth century form (as everyone from Eliot to Beckett to Badiou recognises), makes any staging of the cycle difficult. Yes, the music requires the constancy of two performers, and yes the scrapings and sforzandi of the violin and the swooping curves, burning accents and occasional tender intimacy of the soprano mark out a clear stylistic grain for the cycle, but these conditions are implicit and obligatory in any conventionally authored and performed musical work.
The separate arena of character, where each fragment is related only to itself, perhaps these even suggesting different individuals at the site of each revelation, makes such an integrated setting as we witnessed here problematic. Dawn Upshaw's American housewife goes about her daily jobs with what we understand to be a constantly running internal monologue, sung to the audience and sometimes acted with the violinist Geoff Nuttall (who is similarly casually dressed and otherwise involved in the staging), that makes her witty and observations and sad concerns explicit. A series of black and white photos of people and landscapes are projected on a large back screen to the dark auditorium, these pictures occasionally interlocking with the imagery of the words, and at other times simply providing a visual intensification of the spectacle. The words of each fragment are displayed between these images.
The staging itself, then, at a remove from any formal concerns, is entirely effective; Sellars injects humour to an already droll text (as in the attaca playing of numbers 12 and 13, where the broken leg of the text emerges joyously out of the strange ear of 12, or the two washing up liquid bottles standing in for lovers in the 21st fragment), charms us (the final moonlit duet), feeds in an effective use of props (as in Upshaw's clever use of her broom for the two walking sticks of number 15), and confronts the enormity of some of the revelations head on (the raised arms of the woman in number 6).
The performers are eager participants, dramatically involving and musically spot-on - they were ferocious and then lyrical in the same breath, with Nuttall's wide-ranging violin technique being put to full use by the percussive, stretched parameters of the score, and Upshaw’s ringing top, faultless intonation, and powerful delivery focussing in and refining each blazing moment for an eager audience. The problem of the production is simply that I am not convinced that the work can take the integrative thrust Sellars embeds in it. That aside, this was a night on which all of Kafka's chilling disclosures, Kurtág's daring extrapolations thereof, and Upshaw and Nuttall's enviable skill in an idiom of fragments and severe passion came to the fore engagingly.
Photo: Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nuttall in an earlier performance of the Sellars production
Concert review: BBC SO with Jonathan Biss at the Barbican in Kurtag and Bartok
CD review: Kurtag's Ghosts on Kairos (KAI0012902)
Concert review: John Storgårds conducts the BBC SO in Sibelius and Dean at the Barbican